July 9, 2021

John Thompson: Reappearances from America’s Problem Past

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John Thompson is a retired teacher and historian in Oklahoma who contributes regularly to this blog. This new post looks at the further spread of bad old ideas.

Last month I urged educators to draft and share lessons to offset the dangerous and growing campaigns to censor classroom lessons and other public conversations about Critical Race Theory or even the historical legacies of racial oppression. My post was prompted by a NPR Fresh Air program which offered material for two such lessons. The first lesson would draw upon Scott Borchert’s NPR discussion of his new book, Republic of Detours which explained “the amazing thing about the Federal Writers’ Project was just how much went right.” I was particularly thrilled by Borchert’s research because I believe that a first step towards discussions on post-COVID schools, and social and economic policies should begin, in part, with lessons learned from the New Deal.

The second proposed lesson would begin with Fresh Air’s discussion of the new book, Forget the Alamo, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlison, and Jason Stanford, which challenges common misconceptions about the battle that have been perpetuated, in part, by education malpractice. As I will explain, over the last few weeks, the rightwingers’ battle over the Alamo has become even more antithetical to America’s constitutional democracy. I know no alternative, however, than to continue to share information on the extremists’ behavior, and to do our best to share our faith in democracy, the rule of law and the respectful clash of ideas.

Soon after my first post, while still calling for educators to take the high road by encouraging dialogue, I had to acknowledge that the anti-CRT campaign, which began as a 21st century “Willy Horton” tactic for increasing rightwingers’ turnout  for the mid-term elections, was growing into something much more dangerous. It was being promoted by Steve Bannon as “the path to save the nation [which] is very simple. It’s going to go through the school boards.”

As the term “Critical Race Theory” was used over 1800 times this year on Fox television, in addition to the Daily Wire, Breitbart, Washington Free Beacon, and Newsmax, Fresh Air discussed how school board members in several states have faced “death threats and harassment online.” And the Washington Post’s Hannah Allam illuminated the similarities with the Murrah Building terrorism and “the events happening in our world today.”  An angry commenter complained: “THE TREE OF LIBERTY MUST BE REFRESHED FROM TIME TO TIME WITH THE BLOOD OF PATRIOTS AND TYRANTS!”

The Post’s Allam noted, “The same words are on the back of McVeigh’s T-shirt in the bombing museum.”

Since then, there has been more frightening news from Oklahoma, as well as numerous other states. (To get more worried, go to this blog and read Melissa Westbrook’s accounts of anti-CRT “lowlights from Arizona, Florida, and Maine.”)

Perhaps the worst recent news in Oklahoma is that the state Republican Party elected former Senator John Bennett as party chair; it means that the party is doubling down on its most authoritarian and racist tactics.  Bennett says the Republican Party is “at war with ‘Communist Democrats, a bunch of RINOs (Republicans in name only) and establishment Republicans that have sold out our party.’”  Bennett started his campaign by supporting Jackson Lahmeyer (who is also supported by Gen. Michael Flynn) against the Republican U.S. Senator James Lankford. Lahmeyer characterizes the extremely conservative incumbent as an “absolute coward,” whose sins include “apologizing to Black Tulsans after he questioned the presidential election results.”

Even though Oklahoma’s Republican establishment has enacted policies that are as extreme as about any of those adopted by “Red” states, it must be frustrated by the rank-in-file’s selection of a party leader as weirdly ideological as Bennett. For instance, the Oklahoman reported:

Bennett said he feels called by God to lead Oklahoma’s Republican Party.

“We have to take the gloves off and we’ve got to stand and fight for our republic because if we don’t stand and fight for our republic today we won’t have any freedoms to fight for tomorrow,” he said.

The former state senator has called the Islamic faith “a cancer that needs to be cut out.” Imad Enchassi of the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, has a long record of engaging respectful conversations with Bennett and embracing Oklahoma full diversity. (Fyi, when he and local rabbis get together, their skillful use of humor and people skills to bridge differences are awesome.) But, the Oklahoman also reported:

“John Bennett looked me in the eye and told me that he was going to demolish my mosque and every mosque in town,” Enchassi said recently. “He looked me in the eye and told me that I was the biggest threat for the state of Oklahoma.”

In other words, it is no surprise that each week brings more shocking stories. And that brings us back to the latest chapter in the Forget the Alamo story.  Jason Stanford, a co-author of the book discussed on Fresh Air which I cited as a great source for a shared lesson, writes in the Washington Post about an event at the Bullock Texas State History Museum which “was shaping up to be the highlight of our virtual book tour.” But it was canceled, supposedly because of “increased pressure on social media.”

Stanford first responded with wry wit, “Apparently, the state history museum was no place to discuss state history.” He then wrote:

This isn’t how things are supposed to work, even in Texas, but the truth turned out to be even worse. The state history museum wasn’t bowing to social media pressure but to political pressure from the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, who claimed credit for the kill the next day.

Patrick had attacked the research, then tweeting, “This fact-free rewriting of TX history has no place @BullockMuseum.”

Again, there is little new in this campaign to spin Texas history, even if it is more frightening today. Stanford recalls that a 2018 panel reviewing the state history curriculum “suggested not requiring seventh-graders to learn that those who died at the Alamo were ‘heroic.’” Governor Greg Abbott condemned the suggestion as “political correctness in our schools,” tweeting, “Of course Texas schoolchildren should be taught that Alamo defenders were ‘Heroic’!”

But, Stanford concludes:

More than 20 states have introduced or passed legislation that attempts to prescribe how racial matters can be taught. In Texas last month, Abbott signed into law an act establishing a committee called the 1836 Project (get it?) to “promote patriotic education.”

On the other hand, there has been some good news in the last month. Although the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre resulted in some discord among the sponsors, it was remarkably successful in enlightening Americans about the true history. Brenda Golden, a Muscogee (Creek) activist, has worked constructively with Oklahoma City’s inclusive Republican Mayor David Holt, and the city’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs, to counter the falsehoods that are reinforced by monuments celebrating the Land Run of 1889.

We should also praise a recent New York Times’ guest opinion piece by Kmele Foster, David French, Jason Stanley and Thomas Chatterton Williams. It explains:

We, the authors of this essay, have wide ideological divergences on the explicit targets of this legislation. Some of us are deeply influenced by the academic discipline of critical race theory and its critique of racist structures and admire the 1619 Project. Some of us are skeptical of structural racist explanations and racial identity itself and disagree with the mission and methodology of the 1619 Project. We span the ideological spectrum: a progressive, a moderate, a libertarian and a conservative.

It is because of these differences that we here join, as we are united in one overarching concern: the danger posed by these laws to liberal education.

And, Scott Borchert, whose Republic of Detours was the first subject of the Fresh Air program which prompted my call for shared lessons, recently appeared on CSPAN Book TV. He addressed the questions of how could the Writers Project happen again. We’ve long been burdened by budget cuts, and the difficulty that writers face in the “gig economy.” But Borchert says the pandemic “has brought some sort of resurrection” of the WPA-era vision. He explains in the New York Times that “Representatives Ted Lieu and Teresa Leger Fernández introduced legislation to create a 21st Century Federal Writers’ Project (FWP).” It would tell the stories of Americans, creating a national self-portrait. Moreover:

The new F.W.P. … would revitalize and repurpose portions of our existing cultural infrastructure. The plan is drawing support from the Authors GuildPEN America and the Modern Language Association, as well as from labor unions. Never in the almost 80 years since the dissolution of the original F.W.P. has there been such a unified and resonant call for its return.

I’m not claiming that these constructive discussions are enough to defeat these contemporary versions of America’s darkest pasts. To borrow from Borchert, America is a republic of detours. We must continue to shine lights on historic wrongs and on today’s repudiations of the American values we must defend, as we draw upon public education principles. It’s harder to say so today, but we must still follow Michelle Obama’s admonition, “When they go low, we go high.”


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